Autumn 2021 | Helen Mertens

Exploring a new world

My guiding career of 10 years has taken me across South Africa on a counter-clockwise journey of exciting discovery and learning, starting in the Eastern Cape, moving on to KwaZulu-Natal, then to the Waterberg in Limpopo, and now to Tswalu in the southern Kalahari.

Tswalu is extremely different to all of these places I’ve grown to love. The bush is mainly arid savannah with undulating dunes punctuated by the Korannaberg mountains, contributing to greater habitat diversity than anywhere else in the Kalahari. Many of the animals are unique to the southern Kalahari, and so is the guiding experience. As the guiding is private, we have the freedom to shape the safari experience around the special interests of our guests. This is particularly valuable for birders or those who enjoy getting off the vehicle and exploring on foot. Becoming familiar with all the new and wonderful aspects of the Kalahari ecosystem has been exciting, as I’ve only been here for a few months.

Game viewing here is less about quantity and more about the quality of each sighting. Due to the vast size of Tswalu and the varied habitats, I can head out in a different direction every day and see something different. A private vehicle means being able to stay out for as long as my guests want to. There is plenty of time to get actively involved in the tracking process, follow an animal’s movements, and understand behaviour and group dynamics, whether predator or prey.

The Kalahari is a fascinating and complex ecosystem with innumerable facets and unexpected inter-relationships. So much of it is unseen – a subterranean world beneath our feet and tyre tracks left in the red sand – and many of the key Kalahari species are shy and nocturnal. Autumn and winter are excellent for finding these elusive species – bat-eared foxes, ground pangolins, aardvarks, aardwolfs and brown hyenas – as long as one is ready to brave the cold.

Over and above the animal kingdom, there are also the magnificent views and landscapes, the fascinating geology as well as exceptionally preserved petroglyph sites that act as a testament of ancient human presence in this sometimes barren land which is nevertheless full of life. I look forwards to learning and exploring more while enjoying the privilege of working on such an exceptional reserve.

All images by Barry Peiser